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Lessons learned directed response to ice storm
Governments assess cleanup costs, pleased with communication, cooperation
Gainesville employee Frank Hood braves the cold Thursday morning as a crew begins the cleanup process following this week's ice storm. Hood and crew were working the heavily damaged trees along Ridgewood Avenue.

With only a dusting of snow and warming temperatures, Hall County dodged another round of treacherous winter weather Friday night and Saturday morning, days after a major ice storm toppled trees, ripped down street lights and knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes.

The weekend “thaw” tore the remaining chunks of ice from trees, melting the glittering shavings strewn along roadways like so many false diamonds.

As public safety officials and road maintenance crews remain on alert with more snow and ice possible over the next week, they are recalling lessons learned in big winter storms over the last few years.

“Prior to three years ago, many of our divisions were compartmentalized,” said Gainesville Public Works Director David Dockery.

Internal coordination and communication is much stronger now he added, and winter weather plans are better executed.

Dockery said the city has salt and gravel stockpiled, and is ready to pretreat roads whenever winter precipitation is forecast to move into the area.

When snow and ice bears down, conditions can change by the minute. At such times, public safety agencies remain on high alert, each supporting the other.

It’s about limiting costs and damage, responding quickly to residents in need, and helping to facilitate an adequate cleanup response.

Gainesville Police Department, for example, served in a support role to many agencies this past week, such as the fire department and emergency response teams.

“As with any storm prediction, we are working with our Emergency Management Agency to ensure that we are prepared,” Gainesville police spokesman Kevin Holbrook said. “As in life, we learn from each situation that we are put in and utilize that learning experience toward the next.”

Hall County’s response to the storm was also bolstered by lessons learned in last year’s two winter storms, which spurred officials to better prepare and, hopefully, limit the damage done this time around.

“What we learned last year in the storms was that we really needed better communication between all the different agencies, between the different jurisdictions,” Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said.

Improving communication has helped quicken response times, officials said.

Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said coordinating between agencies is critical to meeting residents’ needs and preparing for the next storm.

The last thing anyone wants is a repeat of the gridlock that crippled metro Atlanta during a snowstorm last year, stranding tens of thousands of motorists.

“We’ve got to stay ahead of the curve,”Couch said.

The county benefited in recent days from additional resources supplied by other government agencies, a kind of reciprocation for the equipment Hall loaned to metro Atlanta agencies last year.

For example, Clayton County and the city of Milton lent fire trucks during the storm.

Gainesville Councilman Sam Couvillon said learning lessons will help avoid the nightmare scenario seen last year.

“After seeing what happened in Atlanta last year, I definitely think we should err on the side of caution,” he added.

Lula City Council discussed the winter weather at its regular council meeting Thursday.

“We’ve kind of had our back against the wall the last few days with power outages,” Mayor Milton Turner said. “We’ve been operating off of generators for our wells and our waste treatment plant.”

Turner said he was worried about getting fuel for generators into Lula, but they were able to Thursday.

The waste treatment plant in the city operated off generators for about 2« days, according to Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin.

Hall County increased staffing levels in its public safety agencies and road maintenance divisions throughout the week in anticipation of another dose of ice and snow.

Six additional 911 dispatchers were called in to handle large volumes of calls for service, and every road crew employee worked 12-hour shifts.

About 160 overtime hours had been logged in the road maintenance division during the ice storm.

County Commissioner Jeff Stowe said officials would discuss next week whether to tap reserve funds to cover storm cleanup costs.

Because ice, rather than snow, was the culprit in this most recent winter storm, Stowe said it’s important for officials to have a debriefing soon to set priorities and prepare for similar instances when power outages are the greatest consequence.

It’s about determining “what went right, what can we do different,” he added.

There are no hard estimates on the storm’s total cost to taxpayers thus far, but Dockery said disposing of trees and other debris could run Gainesville $65,000 alone.

Dockery said Public Works employees had already logged 173 overtime hours by midday Wednesday.

Councilman George Wangemann the storm’s financial toll could be in the millions when both public and private costs are tallied.

With this in mind, the Gainesville City Council voted Friday to allocate $50,000 to support continued cleanup efforts in the wake of this week’s ice storm.

Times reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this report.

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